Why do we do small groups in church? There are many reasons, but most often people will say that small groups are important to meet the need for fellowship.
I both agree and disagree with this statement.
I agree because it is so obviously important to focus on building strong relational connections. I love the weekly Sunday service at my church, with its dynamic worship, powerful and relevant preaching, and top-quality children’s ministry. But over the years too many people have attended for a few weeks or even a number of years, and then drifted away. While people leave churches for many reasons, I am convinced that most will only stay if they form strong relational connections with at least a few people. Besides, didn’t Jesus command us to love one another? It’s hard to love people that you barely know! It’s no accident that most of the churches in the New Testament met primarily in homes. As small group life spreads, and we place more emphasis on building loving relationships, our church is gradually becoming a little more like the church of the New Testament, which was a household of faith, not just a collection of people who met in a building once a week to sing songs and listen to a message.
But in spite of all these compelling arguments for the importance of building relational connections, I can’t really agree that fellowship is the primary purpose of small groups. I believe that the healhiest small groups will be those that focus on making disciples – in other words, helping one another follow Jesus. Small groups that focus on fellowship as their highest goal are likely to end up being self-centred and shallow. Groups that focus on making disciples have the potential to be exciting, dynamic and always challenging as well as supportive.
The biggest single weakness of the North American church is that there are many attenders but very few disciples. Disciples are people who are learning to trust and obey God in their daily lives, people who are choosing – as best they are able, with God’s help – to pattern their lives after Jesus. We all need help with this, and a small group that sees its goal as making disciples is a great place to get support. There you will be loved and accepted but also challenged to grow into the image of Christ.
A small group that is focussed on making disciples will also reach out to others to bring them into God’s family – because that’s what disciples do! It will engage with the Word and apply the Word to daily life – because that’s what disciples do! It will spend time in prayer and worship – because that’s what disciples do! It will focus on serving – because that’s what disciples do! It will help its members discover their spiritual gifts and apply them – because that’s what disciples do!
A group with this kind of atmosphere is lots of fun and leads to awesome fellowship. In a healthy small group, people feel included, they feel they belong, they feel they have something to contribute and that they are making a difference, they feel that they are growing in their faith – because they are! Great fellowship is like the matrix – the atmosphere in which disciples can be made. You can’t become like Christ on your own. It’ s not possible, because the Christian life is meant to be lived in community. But if you make fellowship the primary goal, your group will be shallow. If you aim at helping one another in the journey of discipleship, you get everything else as a bonus. In small group life as well as finances, it really is true that if we seek God’s kingdom first, we get everything else thrown in!